Complete with its own mosque at the halfway service station, the first of a proposed network of motorways through Pakistan has just opened, inaugurating what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif envisages as an 'Indus Highway' facilitating trade and seaport links with landlocked Central Asia. The 333-kilometre high-speed link between the capital, Islamabad, and Lahore represents the start of the first major plan for the national road network for over 50 years - and a new life for the historic Silk Road transport network. Until now, Pakistan's only lifeline has been the Grand Trunk Road, built a century ago by the famous Muslim ruler, Sher Shah Suri, and last upgraded by the British before Pakistan even came into existence. 'To achieve the objective of economic prosperity, it is imperative to establish a basic structure on firm ground. Without development of a highway network, the dream of economic uplift cannot be realised,' said Dr Ghazanfar Mehdi, spokesman for the government transport ministry. But the famed Grand Trunk Road was never capable of coping with heavy traffic, he said. Like the rest of the national road network, it was upgraded and repaired only on a piecemeal basis according to urgent need. 'No comprehensive planning was made. In the meantime, traffic intensity has increased rapidly and out of all proportion. Present-day loads are far in excess of the road capacity. This has rendered the roads literally unsafe - as well as uncomfortable,' Mr Mehdi said. 'Furthermore, with rapid industrialisation and a trend for the population to move to cities, enormous demand for urban transport has been created, but with lack of space in our cities congestion is on the increase. This is virtually strangling our city life.' He said there was an absolute necessity for a new road system which on one hand satisfied these requirements yet on the other hand met international standards. Struggling to service Central Asian trade, meanwhile, has been just one north-south link (the Karachi-Lahore-Rawalpindi-Peshawar highway) burdened with over half of the country's entire traffic. After coming to power, Prime Minister Sharif immediately set about master-minding a solution. He re-modelled the National Highway Board into the National Highway Authority, giving it more power, and revived the idea of the Indus Highway. Largely funded by the government of Japan, the Islamabad-Lahore six-lane highway - opened two months ago - is the first stage and already carrying up to 12,000 vehicles a day in the busiest sections. The project required the construction of three river bridges, four overhead railway bridges and 46 other kinds of bridges over canals, nullahs and flood waterways, as well as eight intersections. Next on the highway agenda is an upgrade to the Grand Trunk Road and a 200-kilometre highway from Islamabad to Peshawar, close to the Afghanistan border. Also a priority is a motorway linking Peshawar to Gawadar, providing Central Asian states with access to Pakistan ports. 'Industrial zones and the provision of telecommunications facilities all along the motorway will ultimately prepare the ground to make Pakistan a great trade centre in the Central and South Asian region,' Mr Mehdi said.